Friday, September 27, 2013

Making friends

We have a pretty basic outreach model. It's making friends. Group affiliations, beliefs and persuasions, genuine community, it all flows and develops along relational networks. There's like a whole lesson about it in Perspectives. Outreach is relationship building, and showing love and loyalty towards others builds trust and credibility while demonstrating the same regard that was given to us.

Like, it sounds obscene when it's written out all clinical and theoretical like that, because I hate thinking of loving others like it's some kind of strategy, but, seriously. I write it because I believe it's true. They will know Who we serve because of how we love.

We've been here a few weeks, but I've already racked up a debt of gratitude to those who have brought us into their social spheres. As an outsider who can't even speak or understand the local language, I have been the beneficiary of so much hospitality, generosity, and kindness. They offer us rides, take us shopping, invite us into their homes, answer our never-ending translation questions. My heart melts every time someone invites us to do something with them; I had forgotten what a precious gift inclusion was!

And all this inclusion makes me wonder about the life I lived back home. For as long as I could remember I bemoaned my isolation; I begged to be put in school when I was ten so that I could have some friends. In high school my social thirst was quenched through NCFCA and youth group, but I still wanted for opportunities to share my convictions through relational pathways. So my first semester of college blew my mind; there were so many potential new friends! And this mindset led to some G0d-ordained conversations in the 24-hour room of library. And as my fear lessened the same thing happened at work, and testimony grew from that. But when commencement ended and I found myself officially graduated, what happened then?

Don't get me wrong, my summer was well-spent. The expeditions to rural hiking trails, the ritual of movie nights, basketball and tennis, beach days, coffee dates, sleepovers, talking by the fire's glow, fireworks and food. I stockpiled a lot of happiness. But how often did I bring an outsider into these social escapades? . . . with some shame I answer, seldom.

Yeah, I had to come halfway around the world to realize what it means to show kindness to strangers. It's not just the poetic anonymity of paying the toll for the person behind you, but also the uncomfortably direct invitation: "We are doing this, would you like to join us?"

I think I actively avoided doing that sort of thing at home, because I assumed it would be awkward and uncomfortable. This is 100% a correct assumption. You think it's uncomfortable to invite strangers to do something with you? It's even more uncomfortable when you're crossing cultures. My blush reflex has been getting a workout since arriving here. It's less of a question if I will make a cultural flub and more of a question of when and how many. But I credit Intervarsity and my staff worker for teaching me a golden, simple truth that is proving itself here. Ain't no one ever died from awkwardness. Embrace the awkward. If you push hard against it, it often surrenders something precious.

A thing so effortlessly typed, written from the quiet solitude of my desk where I sit alone and comfortable inside my head. A thing far more strenuously exercised, when I am tired and afraid and selfish. But I will lift you up in the seeking out and inviting in of those "outside" if you will do the same for me. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Follow the Leader

One of the greatest things about our flat and its location is its close proximity to the grocery store. Norma is not just visible from our flat but is a mere five-minute stroll out of our courtyard. We've been to lots of different markets around our neighborhood, but Norma is where we do almost all of our food shopping, because its proximity to our flat makes walking home with arms full of grocery bags more tolerable. But also it's cute and small, and the staff know us by now, and they tolerate our inability to order meat or our insistence on paying with plastic. So we love Norma. 

Frequently on our trips to Norma we pass people begging on the sidewalk between our apartment building and the grocery store. Usually it's either two young girls or an older woman with a small boy. They puzzle me because they don't look like Russians or Kazakhs, and they're often dressed in colorful, maybe traditional-looking clothes. We think they might be Roma, but we don't know the language well enough to ask them. So usually when we pass I just nod and mumble "Здравствуйте," and then on the way back from the store we'll give them something from our bags, a loaf of bread or some apples or something.

Today I made a quick trip to Norma to grab some ingredients for chicken noodle soup. Because 'tis the season, folks! It's already dipped below the freezing point here. I got a bag of carrots, a bag of potatoes, a bag of noodles, a loaf of bread, some green onions, and a carton of eggs for just over 500T, about $3USD. I love how cheap food is in this country! And you don't have to pay extra for GMO-free because it already comes that way! 

I didn't see the older woman and the little boy sitting in their usual spot because the sidewalk had been closed for construction. (That's another crazy thing about Karaganda, how they build buildings. Brick and mortar, bit by bit. Remarkable.) I was caught by surprise when the little boy appeared from out of the brush, but I pulled the potatoes out of my bag and handed them to him. "Пожалуйста," I muttered, inwardly mourning my complete absence of Russian conversation skills. 

As I walked through the courtyard back to our building I simultaneously marveled at how cheap food was and mused about the little boy and the older woman. Potatoes are cheap, and so it seems to me that these beggars ought to be able to buy at least simple food. Were the potatoes I gave them really what they needed? If only I could have asked what to get them. (Баклажан, eggplant, is the only produce I know.) Maybe they needed clothes instead? But the little boy's tattered shirt was a key element of his pathetic appearance, necessary to garner more donations. What if he was a victim of a Slumdog Millionaire kind of situation, "pimped out" by the older woman to make money? What if my potatoes were more of a salve for my conscience than of any benefit to them?

I had pondered myself into a tizzy by the time I reached our flat, completely at a loss for how to approach the older woman and the little boy next time I passed them. Do I give them money? Buy them meat? Find them hats and scarves? Ignore them? Find a new route to Norma? Oh Father, why is loving people so hard?! . . . and the answer came quickly, quietly, directly.

It is not my job to judge their begging as innocent or nefarious. It is my job to follow my Leader. To greet them as I pass. To share what I have when they ask. Doing is better than thinking. I don't know who they are, I don't even know what they're saying, I just know what my Leader has told me, to give to the poor and the widows and the orphans. Okay, I can do that. Loving is actually a lot easier than I think it is.

And this is what I'm in the process of learning every day here. To look to my Leader for guidance instead of being wise in my own eyes. To stop relying on myself to get through each day and instead look to the Giver of life. He will show me the way if I will ask it of Him, and He will direct my steps if I submit them to Him. He has been in this city infinitely longer than I and He knows these inhabitants infinitely deeper than I. He knows what they need so much better than I, and so it is on Him that I must rely.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Bringing back teatime

When the colonies succeeded from Great Britain, we gained a good many things as a new country. A democratic system of government, tempered by checks and balances. Fair taxation levied with adequate representation. A lot more geographical space and an accent all our own.

Did we fully count the cost of what we would also in turn give up?

I gather that teatime did not leave the continent with the redcoats, and that this tradition persisted until it became out-moded and impractical during the height of the industrial revolution. (Just kidding, I actually know nothing about the history of teatime in the United States. I liberally assume this eradication.) And while it is still common in the USA to meet a colleague for coffee, or talk over dessert and hot beverages at one's home, teatime as we once knew it has ceased to exist.

What I propose, then, is that we bring it back.

Sitting down with a comforting hot beverage. Supplementing your drink with bread & jam, or a slice of cake, or a few cookies, or a little sandwich. Taking the time to sit and be recharged. Engage in diverting conversation. Maybe I've been too engrossed in James' The Portrait of a Lady, but what part of that does not sound like a good idea?!

I cherish the teatimes we've been enjoying in Karaganda. Of course, we're not limited strictly to tea. Hot chocolate and coffee frequently make appearances. And we're not so rigid about the time either: sometimes we take a cup at the school, sometimes in the afternoon if we've had an early lunch, or sometimes in the evening if we've had an early supper. On occasion we have teatime while we play Settlers of Catan, or we pass our teatime with conversation and reflection. Even solitary teatimes are a comfort to me; I pause what I'm doing and take solace in a hot beverage and daydreaming. It's lovely, and sanity-inducing.

I can't wait to begin befriending our neighbors and students so that we can invite them to take tea with us. I think teatime may have a place in the fabric of habit in my future, and gladly.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Too good to be true

As I stare at the Excel sheet I'm typing into, frequently glancing at the top registration card on the stack next to me, it hits me afresh. I am only struggling to input the names into this file because they are foreign to me. I am only typing this roster because I will be teaching these endearing souls how to improve their English. I am living in Kazakhstan. Is this real life?!

It seems to me this is the best job in the world. Here I am, living in a charming city full of friendly people, meeting bright-eyed students who wish to do great things, paying sixty cents a day to ride the bus, and teaching classes at night which preclude me from having to wake up early. There are so many rich additions to life here: we have teatime and toilet closets and integrated public transportation. And there is not so much to miss from western culture: we have peanut butter and fine chocolate and ketchup. We have even begun running into people we know on the sidewalk! The only piece missing is to find a coffeehouse.

The rose-colored lenses will come off in due time, I think. I don't mean to sound like some saccharinely optimistic Lisa Frank butterflies and rainbows caricature. It's just that this is all such a supreme privilege, and I want to preserve these feelings for when it is thirty degrees below zero and the ache of missing Rhode Island cannot be contained. I want to remind myself that there is much to love about Karaganda, so that I will be less in danger of forgetting it.

Conducting placement interviews has sufficiently whetted my appetite to begin teaching. In most cases, one really only needs to talk with a student for 90 seconds to get a feel for their comprehension and speaking ability, but in practice I spoke with each for as long as I could keep the conversation rolling. I never tired of hearing their aspirations to one day visit London (an aspiration I share!) or their puzzled rebuttal of the concept of a "dream job" ("You work at the job you receive!") or their summer adventures paired with back to school woes (the young boys are particularly crestfallen over this.) I like them all so very much, it seems all too fortuitous to be offered such agreeable students. 

I asked the very last student I interviewed, "What are your goals? What plans do you have for your life?" She furrowed her brow, maybe confounded by the word "goals." I clarified, "What do you want to do in the future?" She seemed to understand this. "Well, I like Karaganda." I couldn't stop myself from smiling widely and replying, "So do I."